Donny McCaslin: Going Beyond

Donny McCaslinBeyond Now (Motéma, 2016)

mccaslin-beyondI’ve never been able to fully commit to saxophonist Donny McCaslin‘s music. I appreciate his soaring compositions and his curiosity about electronics, and he does seem to be a musician with a vision, but there’s a sweetness to his writing and his soloing that’s always turned me off.

That element is present on Beyond Now, but even so, I found the album to be powerful and stunning on first listen.

Turns out, it’s all about sequencing.

The story is well told by now: David Bowie hand-picked McCaslin’s quartet to be his band on Blackstar, then died two days after the album’s release. Beyond Now was recorded in the wake of Bowie’s death, and it’s hard not to believe that the wrenching emotions of the moment provided unique fuel for this album.

McCaslin’s band was a wise choice. They’ve become accomplished at painting vast landscapes blazing with intensity. It’s not just McCaslin’s soloing. It’s drummer Mark Guiliana’s ferocity and keen sense of pacing, Tim Lefebvre’s throttling bass work, and the trove of sound effects in keyboardist Jason Lindner’s back pocket.

It all adds up to some intense storytelling in musical form.

The second half of Beyond Now packs four such tracks, most of them starting innocuously before slingshotting you to magnificent heights. This Side 2 sequence, if you want to call it that, starts with the roller-coaster highs of “Bright Abyss” and the pulse-pounding blizzard of “FACEPLANT.” The band takes a breather with the contemplative stillness of “Warszawa” and then moves to the comforting piano chords of “Glory.”

The start of that track feels like a welcome respite — but “Glory” runs hot in its own way. It’s a Metheny-esque track, deceptively pretty but built for

Those four tracks set you up for the closer, “Remain.” It’s a bittersweet anthem that takes its time building to a plasma-fueled crescendo. During that first listen, “Remain” was an emotional wringer, as if the band were trying to transcend the barrier and get one final message out to Bowie.

But here’s the thing.

“Remain” is a pop song originally performed by Mutemath, and it’s rather sappy, and not subtle. It’s drenched in the kind of sweetness that turns me off from some of McCaslin’s music. When I listen to “Remain” by itself, it doesn’t have the same effect. The song’s dramatic buildup doesn’t seem emotional; it’s just slow. And the keening climax of McCaslin’s sax solo feels like TV-style excess.

It’s all about the setting. I needed to be set up by the soaring, questioning, yearning sounds of the other tracks, “Bright Abyss” and “Glory” in particular, in order to buy into “Remain.” By itself, the song doesn’t convince me. But on that first listen, when everything aligned, it was perfect.

One last thing: I love that the album’s two Bowie covers are deep tracks rather than old hits: “Warszawa” from Low and “A Small Plot of Land” from 1. Outside. What great choices. Jeff Taylor adds jazz-appropriate vocals to “Small Plot of Land,” a velvety sound that turns out to be not far removed from the original. It’s a good track, carrying the tension and hint of menace that I want to remember Bowie by.